“I feel sleepy only when my blood is chilled,” so says the high school girl’s kidnapper early in the South Korean omnibus film Horror Stories. The reference is a clever fourth-wall wink to the audience who were in the air-conditioned movie theater during the blustery summer months of 2012 in South Korea. Summer is not synonymous with blockbusters in South Korea but with horror films. The captor is referring to an understanding in South Korea that being scared lowers your body temperature. In addition, when frightened, we often get goosebumps. In an air-conditioned theater, these goosebumps can enhance our chills further. As a result of this mind-body melding to beat the heat, it has become a tradition in South Korea to release domestic horror films in the summer months.
But this wasn’t always the case, South Korean horror films were deemed box office terror in a different way in the eighties and most of the nineties. They didn’t perform well at all regardless of the season. Although the sixtie and seventies produced horror classics such as Shin Sang-ok’s A Thousand Year-Old Fox (1969), Lee Man-hee’s The Evil Stairs (alternate title The Devil’s Stairway, 1964) or the many Myeong-ja’s of Kim Ki-young’s films such as The Housemaid (1960) and The Insect Woman (1972), the modern resurgence of the horror film in South Korea emerged with Whispering Corridors (Park Ki-hyung, 1998). This girls high school ghost story spawned a franchise of horror films, (marked as Yoeggo goedam II, III, IV, and V respectively), each taking place in the claustrophobic confines of a girls’ high school campus.
In the tradition of horror films everywhere, many of South Korea’s most successful horror films resonate with an anxiety-provoking aspect of the society and time within which they were made. Of particular note in the Whispering Corridors series is the focus on hyper-competitive high schools. Other films have focused on destabilized traditions and institutions, such as the family. The first story the high school girl tells in Horror Stories, “Don’t Open the Door” (director Jung Bum-sik), combines this hyper-competition with family destabilization. Two young siblings arrive home alone from their English language cram school because their mother is delayed at work. With the parents separated, there are no family members available to take care of the kids until mother returns. As a result, they are at the mercy of an intruder that may or may not be real.
The disruption of the family partly fuels the dis-ease that permeates two gorgeously realized South Korean horror films, A Tale of Two Sisters (Kim Jee-woon, 2003) and Hansel and Gretel (Yim Phil-sung, 2007), both loosely based on fairytales, the former an indigenous South Korean folktale called The Story of Rose and Lotus (Jeonghwa Hongryeon-jeon) about a stepmother jealous of her two stepdaughters and the latter a well-known German one about two lost siblings threatened by a cannibalistic witch. The set design of both is mesmerizing, but these films are not distracting you with the stylish visuals, their horror seeps into you, especially in the case of A Tale of Two Sisters, which Colette Balmain considers, in Directory of World Cinema: South Korea (The University of Chicago Press, 2013), as one of the “most influential of all contemporary South Korean films” on a global scale.
The third chapter of Horror Stories, “Secret Recipe” by Hong Ji-young, also deals with a disrupted nuclear family, for the step-daughter of the step-mother is manipulated away from her rich suitor in order to secure marriage for the step-mother’s biological daughter. This rich suitor is an old man who has a secret ingredient that enables him to stay looking very young. This chapter also weaves in a reference to the plastic surgery industry in South Korea, a chillingly popular practice among a certain segment of the population seeking cosmetic success. This theme is also a core part of Kim Ki-duk‘s film Time (2006) where a woman has plastic surgery in order to re-woo her boyfriend in a disturbing test of obsession mistaken as love.
Although Time is disturbing, it would be stretching to call it a horror film. There were actually moments when Kim could have shown the violence of plastic surgery, but with Time Kim strayed away. His films The Isle and Bad Guy are more horror-full, demonstrating an aspect of Kim’s work that Hye-Seung Chung calls “his brutal yopgi (bizarre, grotesque, or horrific) aesthetics” in her monograph on director Kim for University of Illinois Press (2012). Released in the summer of 2000, The Isle provides further examples of this aesthetic in the disturbing impaling of fish hooks in bodily orifices, wounds self-inflicted by Kim’s muted lily souls floating in this remote fishing anti-oasis. Kim’s films, fairly popular on the festival circuit and internationally, have not been well-received in South Korea and understandably spark controversy among some film critics. As recently noted in The Hollywood Reporter by Lee Hyo-won, Kim, in an effort to ward off the financial losses of piracy but also an indication of how his films fail to find support in South Korea, said he wouldn’t release his latest film One on One internationally on DVD unless at least 100,000 tickets were sold in South Korean theaters. But not all his films have failed at the South Korean box office. Bad Guy (2001) secured over 700,000 tickets. Chung describes Bad Guy as a “reverse-Pygmalion” narrative and argues Bad Guy, like all of Kim’s films, provides voice for the muted subaltern in South Korea partly through the bodily violence on display. The violence here, and throughout Kim’s oeuvre, is horrifying to witness. The viewer is not left unscathed. As a result, what Kim’s cinematic violence requires is a vigorous post-screening analysis on the pages of scholarly works like Chung’s or in the minds and discussions of audience members.
Although I’m sure the average cinephile will be familiar with Kim Ki-duk, there are two other Kims that are likely less known, twin brothers Kim Gok and Kim Sun. Some of the best work of this unsung dynamic duo of South Korean cinema can be found in omnibus films. Their short on homophobia for the human rights omnibus film If You Were Me 3, “BomBomBomB!!!” (2006) is one of my favorite South Korean films of all time. It is punk rock cinema. They also directed the best of Horror Stories‘ five stories, “Ambulance in the Dead Zone.” Here we find the Kims keeping the propulsive bassline thrumming with their take on the zombie genre. It’s a well-paced chase against infection from the zombie bodies spewing and chewing outside and the moral dilemma brewing from within the ambulance itself. The Kim brothers show here they could be part of the future of South Korean horror.
Returning to the past, although Whispering Corridors is given a great deal of deserved credit for re-surfacing the horror genre in South Korea, there were other films that quickly assisted in keeping the horror film wickedly floating. The year 2000 saw the successful debut, Nightmare, of one of the rare South Korean directors to solely focus on the horror genre, Ahn Byung-ki. As Daniel Martin notes in his chapter on Ahn in Korean Horror Cinema (Ed. Alison Piese & Daniel Martin, University of Edinburgh Press Ltd., 2013), “Ahn has worked exclusively in horror, with the express intention of achieving global visibility and pushing the genre into the domestic mainstream.” Although Nightmare is arguably the least of his works, it was a box office success showing South Korean producers that it wasn’t just ghost stories set in girls’ high schools for which the public was screaming.
Another film furthering the foundation of Whispering Corridors was Tell Me Something (Yoon-hyun Chang, 1999). Although not released in the summer but the winter, Tell Me Something is an intriguing trope-trespassing horror film. Interestingly, as Kyu Hyun Kim notes in his chapter in New Korean Cinema (Ed. Chi-Yun Shin and Julian Stinger, University of Edinburgh Press, 2005), Tell Me Something was not promoted as a horror film. Perhaps producers were still hesitant with horror’s financial prospects, advertising it as a “hardcore thriller.” Tell Me Something follows a Detective Cho (played by Han Suk-kyu) pursuing a serial killer of privileged young men. The serial killer leaves stale body parts of the most recent past victim in place of dismembered body parts of each fresh new victim. As with most thrillers, it’s tough to tell you more about Tell Me Something without revealing major plot twists. Let me say cryptically that although Tell Me Something seems to follow the tropes of the “monstrous” feminine of other horror films, what transpires, writes Kyu Hyun Kim, is that “Tell Me Something draws its horrific power from subverting and disrupting male-oriented scopophilia and the objectification of the female subject.” In this way, Tell Me Something indeed tells a horror tale differently than many of those that proceeded and followed it in South Korea and elsewhere.
If you were intrigued by the brief moments of horror within Bong Joon-ho’s apocalyptic action thriller Snowpiercer that finally came to movie theaters in the United States this summer, such as the frightening scene when the clairvoyant Yona (Ko Ah-sung) screams a “Don’t Open the Door!” warning to her father (Song Kang-ho), you might want to come into the cold of South Korean Horror films as a means to recover from the heat outside. It sure beats beating the climate-changing enhanced heat by engaging in some misguided geo-engineering.